An Oath Keeper on guns, race and Ferguson
Protests erupted on the streets of Ferguson, Mo., this week to mark the killing of Michael Brown, the unarmed black 18-year-old shot by a white police officer one year ago. Some of the demonstrations turned violent, and a state of emergency was declared in Ferguson on Monday. Rocks and glass bottles were thrown at police officers, shots were fired, and a man was critically injured by police gunfire after allegedly shooting his own gun. At least one reporter was beaten and hospitalized, and dozens of people were arrested.
Amid the frantic scene, a handful of white men armed with semi-automatic rifles and clad in camouflage vests walked the streets, alarming police and protestors alike. This group of current and former military, police and first-responders call themselves Oath Keepers, and pledge to "defend the constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic." Representatives of the organization said they were at the protests to protect reporters Joe Biggs and Jakari Jackson of the conspiracy-minded website Infowars. The Oath Keepers had been there before, taking to rooftops in Ferguson last November claiming to protect local businesses after it was announced that officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has described the Oath Keepers as a "fiercely anti-government, militaristic group" and included its founder in their list of "extremists". St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar also called their appearance this week "both unnecessary and inflammatory", and many protesters agree.
Sam Andrews of the St. Louis chapter of the Oath Keepers responds to their concerns.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Helen Mann: Activist Ryan Herring described the Oath Keepers's presence as intimidating and frightening. How would you describe your interactions with the protesters?
Sam Andrews: Well, I personally had a much different take on the situation than Ryan did. I understand his perspective. There were a lot of inaccuracies in his statement. First off, there were a lot more than four Oath Keepers there that night that he described. Secondly, the Oath Keepers weren't filming anyone. The guy doing the filming was a black man named Jakari Jackson. He was the guy holding the video camera. And the guy smiling a lot was the other reporter. His name was Joe Biggs. It really shows that there's a lack of education, a lack of knowledge, a lack of understanding about your rights. And this is what we ran into all over Ferguson. Black person after black person after black person, they would come up to me and say, "Sam, what kind of gun is that, hanging on a sling?" And I would say, "The kind of gun that you should have on your person so the police can't violate your rights."
HM: So is that basically the message you were trying to send to the protesters when you talked with them — that they should be armed, too, like you?
SA: Absolutely. Honestly, we weren't there to display guns or to protect our Second Amendment rights. Two reporters had been attacked the night before. So when Joe Biggs and Jakari Jackson — two reporters that are friends of mine — flew in from Texas, they texted me and said, "Is it true that reporters were attacked?" and I said, "Yes, do you want somebody to watch your back?' He said, 'Really? Would you do that for us?" and I said, "Absolutely."
HM: But can you understand why someone like Ryan might find it intimidating and frightening to see you walking around with those guns?
SA: Absolutely, because Ryan doesn't know that my men are more skilled than the police. And Ryan doesn't know that we're on his side. We respect his rights. We believe that black lives matter. We're tired of the police violating people's rights. We're tired of the police chief ignoring state law and ignoring our constitutional rights. And not just white people. Black people. Asian people. Hispanic people.
HM: But the police say that you're inflaming an already inflamed situation. So did the county executive.
SA: Let's talk about the facts. On Sunday night, there were 57 shots fired. There were 152 arrests. On Monday night, up until about 11:50 p.m., there were 22 arrests. Bottles and rocks and bricks being thrown at the police. Several shots fired. At 12 midnight on Monday night, Joe Biggs and I and Jakari Jackson and my team of men showed up. And the police calmed down. The protesters calmed down. The protesters started coming up to us, giving us hugs: "Oh, thanks for coming back. We're so glad — we haven't seen you since last Thanksgiving." And we had conversations with the black leaders, with the Black Panthers, with some of the gang members that were there, with a lot of the protesters that were there.
HM: So you're assuming that your presence is the reason that things wound down.
SA: I'm not assuming that. I'm telling you that's exactly what happened. We changed the paradigm in Ferguson.
HM: Let's get back to your assertion that the black protesters in Ferguson should assert their Second Amendment rights, and also walk around with weapons. We asked Ryan about that as well. Here's what he had to say:
Ryan Herring: Had protesters showed up that night looking the same way that these Oath Keepers did, that night would have turned out a lot differently for us. The officers there — there's already a huge tension, and we're unarmed. They've weaponized our blackness, so our very presence is threatening to them. And had we shown up with guns, in camouflage and vests, undoubtedly they would have used extreme force; much deadlier force than they had already used against us.
HM: Do you think he has a point? Wouldn't black protesters be in danger from police if they showed up armed like you were?
SA: Well, let's talk about the facts again. Poor Ryan has this false belief system that the police will kill him if he's armed. Ryan should have been there last night, because the protesters were all walking around armed. That was the protest last night. Every other — the black people were carrying [weapons] and guess what. The police didn't do anything, because the police know this is an open carry state.
HM: I know it's an open carry state, but were you saying that they were walking around carrying assault rifles — as well armed as you were?
SA: No, but they will be soon. Because that's what we've encouraged them to do. And that's the key to the black community stopping this abuse: Arming themselves, standing up for their rights, and saying, 'No more. We're not going to take it anymore.'
HM: Ryan is not the only voice saying that there was a feeling of intimidation because of your presence. I'm just wondering why we shouldn't see a group of heavily armed white men in a predominately black demonstration as provocative.
SA: You can see it any way you want, but the truth of the matter is that the police and [St. Louis County Police Chief Jon] Belmar's cavalier attitude, ignoring people's rights and state laws, is going to continue to go on until the black community learn what the Oath Keepers already know. Which is that no one's going to give you your rights. You have to stand up for them, and prevent them from taking your rights. If we have to lead by example, fine. But there's a lot of black Oath Keepers out there. There's a lot of Hispanic Oath Keepers out there. There's a lot of Asian and Polynesian and Native American Oath Keepers, and everybody is learning this lesson and it's a wonderful thing.
HM: Why, though, are you not putting them forward to speak publicly instead of the white members, on what is clearly such a racially charged issue? As you say, there are allegations that you have a racist organization, or that your presence is sending a message to the black community. Why not have those African-American Oath Keepers be the frontmen for your group right now?
SA: Well, if you look at our operation at the Sugar Pine Mine in Oregon, just four weeks ago, the leader on the ground was a Marine named Brandon who is a minority. Where was the media on that deal? But if you go back and you look at Reuters pictures, you'll see Brandon the minority standing there with his vest, and D.J., right there leading the operation. Both minorities with their vests and their AR-15s. But the media doesn't tell the truth, and they like to paint the picture one way when in fact it's something entirely different.
HM: The head of the Missouri chapter of The Oath Keepers, John Karriman, was on CBC Radio's As It Happens this week. Let's take a listen to what he said...
John Karriman: If there was ever a time in our history as a country in the United States when we could get on the same page and take care of some of these problems, it would be now. We've got a mulatto president. We've got a black head of the Department of Justice. We have a number of blacks that have risen to high office. And if surely there was a time we could fix this, it would be now. But instead, through inflammatory statements or outright omissions when they could speak up and say "No, that's not right,'"they tend to allow the situation to fester. So I just have to assume that there's some type of endgame — some type of reason for not wanting to calm things.
HM: That was John Karriman of the Oath Keepers. Sounds to me like he was saying the president and other African-American leaders are deliberately fanning the flames. Is that what you hear in that clip?
SA: No. I was standing next to him when he said that over the phone, actually, and I know exactly what he said in that situation. He wasn't talking about the president fanning the flames. He was talking about St Louis County fanning the flames --
HM: He referred to a "mulatto president."
SA: I'm sorry?
HM: He referred to a "mulatto president."
SA: Does he not have a white mother and a black father?
HM: Was he not saying "the president" though? You're denying that he said "the president."
SA: Well you know, if you want a clarification on the statement, you should probably ask him. But the people that are inflaming tensions in Ferguson are the St Louis County Police — and the Department of Justice, who ordered the same police to not arrest the looters and arsonists. By the way, those people are not the same group of people as the protesters.
HM: I want to read you a quote: "Go armed at all times as free men and women, and be ready to do sudden battle. Anywhere, any time, and with utter recklessness." That is Stewart Rhodes, the founder of your organization, writing on the Oath Keepers website. And that was within the last month. Are you prepared to heed that call?
SA: Well, Stewart Rhodes was quoting a founding father, and his point was that people need to be ready to deal with tyranny. And there are different levels of tyranny. There was tyranny when Chief Belmar told the citizens of Ferguson and of St. Louis, "You can't carry open." And we quoted the law to him that says we can. And he said, "I don't care about state law. I've got lawyers for that; I'll deal with it later." And then there's a tyranny where police will shoot you in the head for no reason at all, or they'll shoot you in the back while you're running away. That's a different level of tyranny that requires a different response.